I'm a Leafs fan through and through. I try to take as honest a look at things as I can, but at the same time, I know that I see the world through a Blue and White lens. In the interest of trying to look at things as honestly as possible, I'm going to run through the good, the bad and the ugly for the Leafs' short term future.
Brian Burke's handling of RFAs - I love the Kulemin contract. $2.35M over two seasons is perfect for both sides. Kulemin has a chance to prove that he's a top-six forward over the next two years and, if he is, he'll get paid. John Mitchell is a good bottom six guy that is making bottom six money. Perfect.
Goaltending Prospects - I don't think even the most loyal Leaf fan would suggest that we have top tier goaltending right now. That said, what we do have is the best goalie coach in the league and a glut of prospects for him to work with. Reimer played well last season and both Rynnas and Gustavsson are considered to have NHL-level talent. All we have to hope for is that one of them develops into a top-half NHL goalie in the next few seasons and I don't think that's an unrealistic expectation.
Tomas Kaberle - I know that a lot of people think that his value is going up as the free agent class dwindles but I feel differently. I think that many of the teams that had concerns on defense have been able to address these concerns in free agency and that the number of teams seriously interested in Kaberle has probably also decreased. I still think we're going to see a decent return for the guy, but I feel that the time to deal him was probably at the draft (just look at what Ballard brought back).
Too Much Money on Defense - I hate flogging a dead horse but we are overpaying most of our defensemen. Even if we assume that Finger's money can disappear at Brian Burke's whim, we still have a lot of coin committed to our d-corps and the guys back there aren't exactly dynamic in the offensive zone. Too much money for too many of the same guy.
Our First Line - Kessel is a good player and might be the second best winger on a pretty good team but he shouldn't be far and away your best offensive talent. Bozak is a good player but he shouldn't be your best center. Kris Versteeg is serviceable but he shouldn't be playing on your first powerplay unit. Hopefully this gets addressed in the Kaberle deal but for now it isn't pretty.
Our Third Line - We have fantastic third line players - unfortunately, some of them will probably be playing on the second line. I love the idea of rolling Kulemin, Grabovski and Armstrong out on a third line that can score and has two talented checking wingers but let's face it, some of these guys are going to be on our second line. Maybe part way through the year Kadri is ready for 2nd line minutes against decent checking lines but my guess is that at least to start he's third on the depth chart at center. Who fills our 2nd line winger slots if not Kulemin? With these guys getting mis-cast, what could be our best line will likely be our worst.
There's still a lot of off-season left. Burke has surprised us before and the free agent class, while thin, is still largely available. We have money to spend (either in free agency or by taking on money in trades) and the biggest fish in the pond is still available in Ilya Kovalchuk. While I don't think he's a future Leaf, I certainly hope he is. By signing him, we would address almost every issue identified in both 'The Bad' and 'The Ugly' and that would be good.
I think that's a pretty fair and realistic look at the situation. I would say that the goaltending is in a good place right now and the Leafs aren't an easy team to play against with Komisarek, Beauchemin, Phaneuf, Orr and Armstrong in the lineup but aren't going to scare anyone either.
Clearly, the ugliest of the ugly is "Brian Burke's hubrus". The Leafs are a long, long way away from contending and if he wasn't so concerned with not giving Boston another lottery pick he'd take a package of picks and prospects for Kaberle instead of insisting on someone who can step in right away. Said player will be an UFA by the time the team is ready to contend and will either command too much of the cap or leave. This will harm the franchise significantly.
I hear what you're saying but I'm not sure I entirely agree. Having already given up our first rounders the past two years (which we have to take as given at this point) and with only three players under contract for 2013, you have to think Burke is targeting 2012-13 as the year he feels his team will have it's best chance to compete.
With that in mind, he has three years to not just make the playoffs, but probably to win a round or two (if he wants to stay on as GM). The problem with prospects or picks for Kaberle, given this timeframe, is that in many cases these players will just be hitting the league 3 years down the road. I feel like Burke is probably hoping that year is his team's second playoff appearance (at minimum) and that the experience gained from the first will help them that season and so on.
I expect that by that season, Kessel's contract will be considered an underpayment, Phaneuf's will look as good as it ever will and Bozak and Kadri will still be making mid-level money. If you're targeting 2012-13 then getting a lineup ready young forward is probably the move - unless you can get an almost ready Joe Colborne-esque prospect.
I still think a plan like that is more geared towards making Burke look good than making the Leafs better as a franchise.
It remains to be seen what he can get for Kaberle (my guess: not much), so we're speculating at best here, but unless he really doesn't trust his scouting staff, he won't be able to haul more proven talent than he will in potential talent.
I don't think that Burke has learned his lesson. He overrated his team last year and traded for Kessel. Now that he's set the franchise back two years, he's compounding the problem by not recouping rebuilding assets but going for the quick fix. The team will not be good enough to compete for the Cup in 2012-13 because you can't win in the new NHL with free agents and 2nd contracts.
Kessel's contract may one day be an underpayment, and it's not his fault that Burke overpaid for him. He is the type of player who could outplay his share of the cap, assuming it keeps going up. Phaneuf's, on the other hand, is a millstone of biblical proportions which will never be lived up to and will cripple the fortunes of the team for the next 3 years.
Burke will one day be seen for the monstrous bumbler that he is.
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